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Sept. 11 Plays a Role in Coming-of-Age Novel
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Sept. 11 Plays a Role in Coming-of-Age Novel

Author Interviews


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. A new novel, the Emperor's Children, chooses as its setting this time in New York five years ago. Just before and after September 11th. Three privileged thirty year olds are trying to find success in the Manhattan media world. The only thing worse than selling out is not mattering at all. Author Claire Messud spoke with DAY TO DAY'S Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND: Is this book your reaction to September 11th, or is it that any novel set in New York these days has to figure that day in somehow?

Ms. CLAIRE MESSUD: It's sort of a funny thing. This book I had started writing before September 11th. And then I had a baby and then there was 9-11, and I put it all to one side and thought I wouldn't probably come back to it and eventually did. And when I did, it was a different book.

BRAND: How did it change your writing of them, of the characters? Because most of the book is set in the months before September 11th.

Ms. MESSUD: Mm hmm. I think it changed the way I wrote about them a fair bit. I went back to the beginning and started again. And I had been having a problem with the tone when I was first working on the book because I felt it important somehow to let the reader know that I was not wholly complicit with my characters and their preoccupations and so on. And I sort of judged them for having those preoccupations. And 9/11 in a funny way helped me be more sympathetic to my characters, and I think to be more indulgent of them and less openly satirical. I think I had more compassion when I came back to it.

BRAND: At the beginning of your book, there's a quotation, and it says in part, “If you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else in life matters.”

Ms. MESSUD: Mm hmm.

BRAND: What does that mean? And why would you put that at the beginning of the book?

Ms. MESSUD: These are characters who are ambitious and trying to project into the world the ideas about themselves that they have inside their heads. And at the center of the book is an older character, a prominent liberal journalist called Murray Thwaite who has pretty successfully done that. It seems to be it's always interesting the relation between what's inside our heads and what's outside our heads and what affect one has on the other and which is reality. Is what's out there reality, or what's inside your head reality? And I think there's a pretty strong argument that for the people who successfully obliterate the outside reality from view for themselves with their own myth, all they can see is their own myth and they don't see the actual reality. Then that's the only reality there is.

BRAND: You have a character, Bootie, who is an outsider. He comes into this world, this Manhattan literary world, and tries to take down this literary lion Murray Thwaite. And he has really memorable line after witnessing the World Trade Center attacks. He says it was an awesome, a fearful thought. You could make something inside your head as huge and devastating as this and spill it out into reality, make it really happen. You could for evil, but if for evil, then why not for good, too? Change the world.

Ms. MESSUD: Mm hmm.

BRAND: Do you have that kind of - albeit cautious - optimism?

Ms. MESSUD: I don't - you know, I'm so un-in touch with my dark side in truth in my life so, so I don't know if I have - if I'm a raging optimist in general, but it did seem a thought. You know, why couldn't there be something positive that could affect the world as much and what would it be?

BRAND: Because Bootie really has a transformation. He has sort of defined himself as what he's going to do in terms of taking down his Uncle Murray Thwaite. And it appears at the end of the book that he's really had a 180 degree turn and has really sort of changed his perspective about what his purpose in life is.

Ms. MESSUD: That's interesting. I'm glad you read it that way. I maybe am less wildly optimistic about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MESSUD: I feel he is resilient and he will do something. I'm not entirely - myself, I'm not entirely sure what his next step is going to be.

BRAND: Well, I ended up liking him at the end. And I didn't like him until then.

Ms. MESSUD: At the beginning, right? You know, I like him all along.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MESSUD: But, but some people have said, oh, you seem to like unappealing characters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MESSUD: So, you know, that's just my own perversity, I guess. I like about him his idealism and even though he is like somebody from Mars. You know I, he's very reluctant to accommodate what he sees as the corruption of the world. He wants things to be pure and to be able to define things as good or bad, and there's a certain passion when you think that way that I sometimes feel nostalgia for.

BRAND: A lot of books are coming out right now based around the 9/11 attacks, and I'm wondering how you feel about being categorized that way, as this is a 9-11 book.

Ms. MESSUD: Well, you know, it really isn't a 9-11 book for me. I was writing a book about these people, and 9-11 had to come into it. You can't ignore it. If you're writing about contemporary America, you can't ignore it. Its shadow is going to be somewhere in your book, whether it's over or not.

BRAND: Will it be there in your next book?

Ms. MESSUD: Will it be there? It may well be. The shadow of it may well be. You know, the characters will be perhaps different people than they would have been had there not been 9-11.

BRAND: Claire Messud is the author of the new book, The Emperor's Children. Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. MESSUD: Thank you, Madeleine. Thanks for having me.

CHADWICK: That interview by my colleague Madeleine Brand, and you can read an excerpt from Claire Messud's novel The Emperor's Children at our Web site,

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